850 years of Moscow

Alexei Shvilkin

The origins of Moscow

Moscow, the capital of Russia, is one of the largest cities in Europe. It is one of the few megalopolises that managed to preserve its' historical urban structures. Throughout the years it has been evolving in a classical radial-circular pattern, in which the new and developing regions of the city are built around the historical centre. To better understand Moscow, one has to go back in history and trace its development from the very beginning.

Moscow is first mentioned in medieval chronicles at the beginning of the twelfth century. At that time it was a small settlement, serving as the headquarters of a local prince in the northern province of a young, but strong and prosperous state called 'Kievan Rus'.

Until the 16th century, Kievan Rus was ruled by the royal dynasty known as Ryurikovichi, the ancestors of legendary Ryurik, the Varagian. Ryurik was the original founder of the Russian Empire in the ninth century. The Ryurikovich dynasty is famous for such outstanding leaders as the Great Prince Vladimir Monomakh, and St. Prince Alexander Nevsky. Prince Yuri Vladimirovich Dolgoruky, the son of Vladimir Monomakh and the great-grandfather of Prince Alexander Nevsky, is considered to be the founder of Moscow. Yuri Dolgoruky's name relates to the first written record of Moscow, dating back to 1147. In 1156, he ordered the first wooden walls to be built round Moscow. At that time it occupied the south-eastern area of the modern Kremlin.

Kievan Rus was successfully developing and strengthening up until the end of the 12th century, when Mongol-Tartar hordes invaded the Russian land. For more than two centuries Rus was forced to carry the burden of a foreign yoke. At that time, Moscow started to play a decisive role in the history of ancient Rus. Being located far from Kiev, the capital of Kievan Rus was in deep woods which hindered the movement of Mongol-Tartar cavalry. Thus Moscow soon turned into a town situated at the centre of many major trade routes. This resulted in its rapid growth. Soon, Moscow managed to unite the forces of many separate provinces for the final battle against the Tartar-Mongols.

Three eminent Moscow princes contributed to the victory over the Mongol-Tartar oppression. They were Ivan Kalita, Dmitry Donskoy and Ivan III. Ivan Kalita ruled in Moscow from 1325 to 1340. He turned the small town of Moscow into the capital of the Great Moscow Principality. During his rule the residence of the All-Russian Archbishop was moved to Moscow. In addition, Ivan Kalita ordered the construction of the first stone structures in Moscow.

The Stone Town

Dmitry Donskoy, the Great Prince of Moscow, and the grandson of Ivan Kalita (1359-1389), strengthened the influence of Moscow and won the first military victory in the history of ancient Rus over the Mongol-Tartar army. He built the first stone wall round Moscow town. Ivan III, Great Prince of Moscow and great-grandson of Dmitry Donskoy(1462-1505) finalised the unification of the Russian principalities under the rule of Moscow and completed the victory against the Mongol-Tartar Golden Horde.

Ivan III continued the construction of the stone town of Moscow. During his rule, major Kremlin cathedrals were built: Uspensky (Dormition), Blagoveshchensky (Annunciation) and Arkangelsky (Archangel Michael) were built. Further, the Kremlin was surrounded by a new stone wall, which still stands to this day. The Kremlin towers were also built at that time, but they had no domed roofs then. Several years later, another stone wall was erected around the trade area called Kitai-Gorod (Chinatown). The remains of this wall are still present in Moscow, not far from Nikolskaya Street.

In the 16th century, new streets and small settlements appeared around the Kremlin and Kitai-Gorod. Between 1583 and 1593 this expansion was surrounded by a wall of white stone nine kilometres long. The construction was supervised by the famous Russian architect Fedor Kon. The white walls gave a new name to this area of the ancient town - Bely Gorod ('The White Town). Today, the walls of the White Town have been replaced by The Boulevard Ring, a ring of boulevards, enveloping the city centre. The names of several places located in the area of the Bulvarnoye Koltso preserve the memory of the ancient gates (Vorota) of the old White Town: Nikitskyie Vorota, Pokorvskiye Vorota.

By the end of the 16th century, Moscow had expanded far beyond the old walls of the White Town. An embankment with a wooden wall on top was built to around the new districts to protect the citizens from Tartar raids. The area of Moscow encircled by this embankment was called Zemlanoi Gorod (Ground Town). Now, one of the main city streets - Sadovoye Koltso - passes along the line of this ancient earthen mound. The names of several streets still remind us of ancient Zemlyanoi Gorod: Zemlyanoi Val (embankment), Krymski Val, etc.

In 1589, during the rule of the Tsar Fedor Ionavich (1557-1598) the Moscow Archbishop was proclaimed the All-Russia Patriarch, signifying the religious dominance of Moscow.

At the end of the 16th century, the chain of the Tsar dynasty was suddenly broken. This infamous event marked the beginning of a seven-year period called the 'Time of Troubles'. These were years of civil uprisings and numerous palace murders, combined with a threat of foreign aggression. Russia seemed to be rapidly plummeting to its doom, and like many times before, was saved by Moscow. Prince Dmitry Pozliarsky and the rural Council Elder Kuzma Minim managed to unite the opposing feudal groups into one army, and as a result, won a decisive victory over the foreign invaders. The monument to Minin and Pozharsky was erected on Red Square, close to the Cathedral of the Intercession.

Moscow and the Romanovs

In 1613, Mikhail Fedorovich Romanov (1596-1651) was proclaimed the Tsar of Russia. His was the last dynasty of the Russian tsars and his descendants ruled the country for over 300 years until 1917.

In 1713, Peter the Great (1672-1725) moved the capital of Russia to St. Petersburg, which was built by him specifically for that purpose. Moscow, however, always remained the heart of Russia and its primary capital. All Russian tsars were crowned in Moscow in the Kremlin Dormition Cathedral. In general, Moscow lifestyle was quieter and considerably more conservative than that of St Petersburg. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Moscow's construction in European baroque and classical styles was interpreted by Moscow architects in unique ways, and contributed to the creation of a distinct Russian architecture.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, Moscow's boundaries were expanded greatly. Tsarina Elizaveta Petrovna ordered the Kamer-Kollezhski embankment to be built around the new living districts of Moscow. This mound remained the border of Moscow up to the beginning of the 20th century. Its purpose was to restrict the smuggling of goods (mainly highly-taxed vodka) into Moscow. The embankment got its name from the state tax authority: Kamer-Kollegia (Chamber Board).

Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812 had a great impact upon Moscow. All of the patriotic forces of Russia were united by Moscow during the war of 1812. Napoleon understood the city's role quite well. He reportedly said: 'If I take Kiev, I will paralyse the limbs of the Russian state. If I capture St Petersburg, I will take it by the head, but if I capture Moscow, I will seize it's heart.' Napoleon did manage to capture Moscow. However, the day before, the city was burnt down by Muscovites themselves, leaving the enemy no trophies. This episode is known as The Great Moscow Fire. The city underwent massive reconstruction once the French were defeated.

Moscow played a key role in Russian social and cultural life of the 19th century. Practically all great Russian writers lived in Moscow at some time during their lives. In 1844, the School of Arts was founded in Moscow. The list of graduates includes such famous Russian artists as AK Savrasov, II Levitan, II Shishkin, VD Polenov and VA Serov. Moscow's famous patrons of art included the members of the Morosov family, the Tretyakov brothers, Savva Mamontov, the Schukin brothers and many others. The collections of Moscow's art patrons became the source for such world-famous collections and museums as Tretyakovskaya gallery, established by the merchant PM Tretyakov.

The 20th century - the Bolsheviks come to Moscow

By the beginning of the 20th century, nearly one million people lived in Moscow. At the same time, the number of citizens in St. Petersburg was approaching 1.4 million. While St. Petersburg became the centre of the two revolutions that shook Russia and the world, Moscow had only one incident, in December 1905, in a relatively quiet, Moscow way. In November 1917, Moscow opposed the Bolsheviks. Nevertheless that year the Bolsheviks chose Moscow as their capital because of its central location, fewer numbers of apprehensive proletarians and abundance of well-educated technocrats.

After the October 1917 uprising, drastic changes took place in Russia. During the years of Soviet rule, the town planning of Moscow took many dramatic turns. Overall, the Soviet government ordered four general reconstructions of Moscow. Fortunately, these reconstructions didn't change the general structure of the city, but many historic buildings, churches, monasteries and convents were destroyed.

Many unique architectural projects were carried out during the Soviet era, contributing to the contemporary city panorama: new highways, bridges, metro stations, sky-scrapers, etc. As a result, Moscow has lost a great deal of its ancient beauty, integrity and charm. However, some of the once-destroyed buildings and monuments have recently been built anew. The fantastic Saviour Cathedral, blown up by the Bolsheviks in 1932 and rebuilt in 1997 has become the symbol of the spiritual revival of Russia. It has been decided that the Saviour Cathedral will soon receive official recognition as the main cathedral in Russia and the All-Russia Patriarch's services will be held there. Kazan Cathedral and Voskresenskiye Vorota with its Iverskaya Chapel on Red Square have also been rebuilt recently.

In 1997 Moscow celebrates its 850th anniversary. This gives us yet another reason to take a fresh look at the city's heritage, to try to understand the secret of its' ageless outer splendour and more importantly, inner strength - the quality that has always helped Russia in its most critical periods.

So, welcome to Moscow! Our ancient and yet forever young city is always happy to greet visitors. Walk the streets of our city, immerse yourself in the centuries-old purity and holiness of Moscow's cathedrals and churches! Feel the spiritual side of Russian culture and art! Taste the delicacies of our national cuisine and experience the famous Russian hospitality!

For more information: Alexei Shvilkin at Golden Pages, Moscow. Tel: +7 095 131 3457 E-mail: AVS7@columbia.edu